With the price of gas low and the classic three-box sedan beginning its slow ride into the sunset, SUVs and crossovers are once again king. But with each passing year, there seems to be less and less utility in sport utility vehicles. The vast majority of them are little more than tall station wagons, or worse, minivans in disguise. In fact, beyond the Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler, Chevy Suburban, and maybe a handful of others, most SUVs and Crossovers today are built on car platforms, and the only thing separating them from their asphalt-loving relatives is a hatchback and a taller ride height.
So while the marketplace gets crowded with new models every year, the one thing disappearing from dealer lots faster than sedans are true SUVs: the rugged, go-anywhere vehicles that are based on solid truck frames, and can tackle the suburban jungle as easily as an actual jungle. Believe it or not, it really wasn’t that long ago when there were a lot to choose from.
We took a look back at some of the most formidable names in 4×4 history and came up with 12 SUVs that deserve to make a comeback.
1. Ford Bronco
We’ll start with the one that is finally, absolutely, positively coming back. Not only is the Bronco one of the most popular nameplates in off-roading history, it’s also one that’s been primed the longest to make a big comeback. Over a 30-year production run, Bronco grew in size but always stayed true to its rugged 4×4 roots. It became so successful in the ’80s, in fact, that Ford introduced a smaller model, the Ranger pickup-based Bronco II to compete with Chevy’s S-10 Blazer. The Bronco II begat the Explorer in 1990, and after declining sales (and some seriously bad PR), the Bronco was discontinued after 1996.
A new Bronco has been rumored on and off for years. But now we know that Ford will reintroduce the Ranger pickup and a Jeep Wrangler-fighting Bronco before the decade is out. Start the countdown now, and keep saving your pennies.
2. Land Rover Defender
The Defender was a direct descendant of the original Land Rover of 1948, and it stayed in production all the way through December 2015. But even after 67 years, we weren’t ready to see it go. The Defender had largely been unchanged since 1990, but with global emissions and safety standards getting stricter by the year, Britain’s favorite off-roader (seriously, they’re everywhere over there) is now a thing of the past. An all-new Defender is on the way for 2018, but no matter how good it is, there’s no way it can truly fill the tracks left by one of the most iconic vehicles ever made.
3. Chevy K5 Blazer
Not to be outdone by the Bronco, Chevy unveiled the Blazer in 1969, and it went on to become one of the most iconic off-roaders in history. We’re not looking for a revival of the suburb-friendly S10 Blazer, or the yawn-inducing ’02-’09 TrailBlazer, but the hardcore K5, with its heavy-duty suspension, available 6.2 liter Detroit Diesel V8, and removable hardtop. The K5 was so capable, in fact, that the U.S. Army used them in the ’80s to augment their aging Jeep fleet before the Humvee came along. If Ford takes a leap and reintroduces the Bronco, could an off-road ready Blazer be far behind it?
4. Dodge Ramcharger
The Ramcharger was Dodge’s answer to the Bronco and Blazer, and was sold stateside from ’74 to ’94. With a bulletproof frame sourced from the Dodge Ram 1500, and powered by unkillable 318 or 360 V8s, Ramchargers weren’t only one of the toughest 4x4s money could buy, but their well-appointed interiors put them a step above the competition too. Dodge’s big two door SUV was so popular in Central and South America, in fact, that an updated model (based on the ’94 Ram) was sold south of the border until 2001. Compared to the Ramcharger, Dodge’s current unibody Durango looks like a Caravan. We can’t help but think of a re-imagined one with the 707 horsepower SRT Trackhawk package.
5. GMC Typhoon
While GM’s S-10 based Blazer and Jimmy weren’t designed to take the same levels of punishment as the K5, they still had their moments. The brightest was the GMC Typhoon, a two-door SUV that could outgun the Nissan 300ZX Turbo, Corvette, and Ferrari 348ts. Sharing its drivetrain with the GMC Syclone truck, the Typhoon was powered by a 4.3 liter turbocharged V6 that delivered 280 horsepower to all four wheels — though many felt that GM was purposely underrating its horsepower numbers. Just over 4,600 were produced between 1992 and ’93, making the Typhoon one of the rarest performance vehicles of the decade. With Jeep’s Grand Cherokee SRT currently the best-selling performance car in FCA’s lineup, we’d love to see GM battle back with a 21st century Typhoon.
6. Suzuki Samurai
In its nine years on sale in the U.S., the Suzuki Samurai got no respect. It was considered a cheap imposter compared to burlier 4x4s. Consumer Reports demanded it be taken off the roads (which Suzuki sued over, and CR later settled out of court). And it never sold in the numbers Suzuki hoped for. But 20 years later, the Samurai has achieved a strong cult following. If they survive rust-free — and that’s a big if, unfortunately — the subcompact, nimble Samurai can still tackle just about any terrain you throw at it. Safety requirements be damned, today’s SUV market needs a compact, go-anywhere machine that’s as dirt cheap and no-frills as the Samurai was.
7. Toyota FJ
The recent Toyota FJ Cruiser was a nice aesthetic tribute to the original Land Cruiser, but it was a little lackluster in terms of ruggedness and durability. The classic J40/60 Land Cruiser is up there with the Land Rover and Jeep CJ in the holy trinity of off-roaders. It was produced largely unchanged from 1960 to 1984, and it’s become so legendary in the years since that well-kitted examples now change hands for over $100,000. We’d love to see Toyota get a little adventurous and bring a workhorse LC back to its lineup to sell alongside the latest super-sized model. They still sell the ’80s era 70 Series in Australia. That’s a good enough starting point for us.
8. Volkswagen Type 181 “The Thing”
The Volkswagen Beetle might not come to mind when you think off-roader, but it certainly was one of the most rugged vehicles ever built. Air-cooled, dirt cheap, and with few moving parts, the beauty of the Beetle was that it could be transformed into nearly anything — like The Thing. Developed for the West German army in 1968 (and built using VW’s slightly larger Karmann-Ghia floorpan), the Type 181 got its name when it was introduced in the U.S. market, and sold here between 1972 and ’75. Known for its bizarre parts-bin aesthetic and bulletproof reliability, we’d be happy to see any major automaker try their hand at building a cheap, fun, no-frills off-roader with half the personality of The Thing.
9. International Scout
With an impressive production run (1961–1980), the Scout ranks alongside the Bronco and Jeep CJ-5 as one of the best American SUVs of the ’60s and ’70s. Today, Scouts are prized by off-roaders for their dead simple mechanics, solid reliability, and healthy supply of aftermarket parts. International has been focusing almost entirely on over-the-road trucks, buses, and military vehicles since Scout production ended 37 years ago. We’d love to see it return to its roots and bring its iconic, no-frills SUV back.
10. Willys Jeep
OK, hear us out on this one. Yes, the Wrangler is a direct descendant of the CJ, but we want a Jeep that’s even closer to its roots. There are a few ways to do this: 1) We’d love to see Jeep build the topless, short-wheelbase Shortcut concept, which it debuted at Moab in 2016. If it won’t do that (hint: It won’t), then we’d: 2) Convince Mitsubishi to build actual CJs again. Mitsu built and sold a Willys CJ-3B for the Japanese Market from 1953 to 1998. The company is desperately looking to make a splash in the U.S. market again; it could do a lot worse than resurrecting its 65-year-old tooling and build new/old off-roaders for Americans. If Mitsubishi won’t go for that (hint: It won’t), we could: 3) Find a way to get our hands on a Mahindra Thar, and Indian-built jeep that’s about as close to a new Willys as you’re going to find on the planet.
11. Lamborghini LM002
Lamborghini is going full-Porsche and developing the Urus SUV to bolster its sales. But we’d love to see Lambo build something a little more like its original truck, the LM002. The bizarre love child of a failed military truck design and a Countach, the “Rambo Lambo” was one of the strangest cars of the 1980s, and summed up everything that was great about Lamborghini at the time: bizarre looking, unbelievably fast, and lacking almost any kind of practicality. That may not sound like a recipe for success (and financially, it wasn’t), but we’d like to see Lambo go back to its roots and off the rails a little bit again.
12. Fiat Jolly
On the surface, there’s nothing truck-like about it, but we’d love to see a modern Jolly. Based on the Fiat 600, the Jolly was built by Ghia to serve as a very lite-off-road vacation car to cater to the world’s wealthiest people; Gianni Agnelli, Aristotle Onassis, Grace Kelly, and Lyndon Johnson were all owners. Today, original Jollys are highly prized. This 1959 model was sold by RM Sotheby’s for a whopping $99,000 in 2014 — that’s a lot for some old Italian steel and wicker. If Fiat took an all-wheel drive 500X, chopped the top, removed the doors, and put in an all-weather interior, we’d be first in line to drive one down to the beach.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS